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How To Choose And Train A Flushing Dog
Nothing beats a well-trained flushing dog for exciting upland action on birds and small game. Our expert explains how to select and train a pup as you get ready for the next fall hunting season.
By J. Michael Kelly
There's a lot to be said for the various flushing breeds, most of it good. For starters, I appreciate the way that flushing dogs, such as my own English springer spaniel, usually work close enough to give their slow-footed human partners decent shots at wild, fast-flying birds.
A flusher's devil-may-care willingness to plow into honeysuckle, multiflora rose and other cover that pointers and setters prefer to sniff from a safe distance is another admirable trait.
The game-detector nose possessed by most flushers, is an obvious positive. So is their retrieving ability, although pick-up proficiency can vary greatly from dog to dog (and trainer to trainer). I've had some flushers that wouldn't win any style points for retrieving, but I haven't seen many that lacked the zest and determination to run down a crippled bird.
Versatility is a plus, for sure. All-around hunters need all-around dogs, and it doesn't bother me a bit when my spaniel briefly interrupts a bird hunt to chase a cottontail or gray squirrel.
The thing I love most of all about the average flusher, however, is its friendly, eager-to-please personality. Flushing breeds are as comfortable in the living room as they are in the field. Springers, cockers, water spaniels, Labrador retrievers and goldens all get along famously with kids - most kids, anyway - and won't even perform at their very best unless they're treated like part of the family.
When I'm in the market for a puppy, I start shopping by looking through the classified ads in local papers and networking with fellow dog owners. The tip that resulted in finding my current field companion was passed along with the mashed potatoes at a Pheasants Forever fund-raising dinner. I bit right away because the tipster shared my love for flushing breeds and knew exactly what I was looking for. Even better, the litter of puppies he had in mind were the offspring of another avid hunter's prize bitch. That dog was the nemesis of neighborhood birds, and I rightly suspected her pups would be chips off the old block.
Before you check out a puppy, ask yourself just what you want in a dog. Then meet your prospects' sire and dam too, if they are available for inspection. Only then will you be ready to start comparing littermates.
I have a big, fenced-in yard but a rather small house, so I wanted a dog small enough to run to the door without trampling the grandchildren or knocking the lamp off the end table.
We keep a clean house but are easy-going about pet hair. Our dogs have always had their own chair or couch, and I am not averse to combing out burrs in the living room after a hard day in the field.
These and other personal factors have much to do with my preference for spaniels. If I were younger, faster and had more room in the house I might be biased toward Labs or golden retrievers, instead.
Once you've taken a look in your own mirror, it's time to contact a kennel or two.
In truth, the ideal time to start looking for a puppy is before its mother is even pregnant. Watch her on a hunt or have the owner put her through a back-yard training session. If you don't have this opportunity, at least be certain to interview the bitch's owner about her pedigree and, more important, her hunting style and performance. A mother that hunts productively is a good bet to produce puppies that will do the same.
The stud contributes equally to the gene pool, of course, but frequently doesn't have the same address as his mate. If you can examine him in person, by all means do so.
When visiting your pup's parents, take note of their shape, size and color. You don't want dogs that are unusually large or small for their breed. A good hunting physique is important, too. Look for dogs that are trim yet muscular with straight, sturdy rear legs.
Ask to see the parents' American Kennel Club papers, and verify to the extent possible that their family tree is loaded with good hunters. Field trial ribbons, though not vital, are a further indication that the pups you're thinking of buying will be intelligent and trainable.
Whatever you do, don't be persuaded to purchase a dog that comes from bench show stock. Some show dogs have retained enough nose and desire to be good hunters, but most have characteristics poorly suited to fieldwork. Show-style springers, for example, tend to have ultra-long ears that are magnets for cockleburs, and skinny hips that limit stamina.
Once you're satisfied that Mom and Dad have the right stuff, focus on the puppies.
I like to see a litter twice before making my final pick. The first gander is taken when the dogs are about a month old, and the second approximately three weeks later. My intention is to take the dog home when it is within a couple of days of seven weeks old.
During visit number one, I inquire about the general health of the brood, whether they've been wormed and innoculated against the Parvo virus, and if the breeder will guarantee the dogs to be free of hip dysplasia. I'll make sure each pup has clear eyes, straight legs and other basics. Next, I sort everybody out by color. Some folks like black labs more than yellow, or vice versa; similarly, spaniel owners can be divided by their allegiance to black and white or liver and white. I favor a dog that's easy to see in the cover I hunt. That means a black Lab or a spaniel with a generous amount of white between its black or liver splotches.
With health, color and sex determined, its time to compare physiques and personalities.
Littermates tend to even out in size by the time they've reached adulthood, but I look for a pup that's of medium stature, just in case. The personality I seek might be described as bold but not brassy. My pups will be friendly and unafraid, yet not overly aggressive.
To identify such dogs, I put several in a row, then get down on my hands and knees and "woof' or "yip" at them. Some will scurry in the opposite direction, and some will charge, barking. The pup I seek might hesitate or even jump back a step, but then it will come close, tail wagging and tongue out. This curious dog will be a pleasure to train.
Just to double-check, I'll observe the leading candidates at play with their kennel pals. Hopefully my initial favorite will hold her own in roughhouse scuffles without being a bully.
You can conduct such tests during your first inspection of the litter. I like to make a tentative pick at that point, with the understanding that I might change my mind on the return visit if, for example, my first choice shows an unexpected change in personality.
Pay no heed to those who say a dog shouldn't be worked heavily until it is fully grown. Any flusher, acquired at the age of seven or eight weeks in April or May, can do a passable job in the field by late October or November, if its owner is willing to put in the requisite training time. Of course, don't expect as much from a six-month-old dog as you would of a more mature canine.
The surest path to a loyal, obedient hunting dog, regardless of breed, is a close relationship with its master. Kennel your dog outdoors if you wish, but mine have always had the run of the house and always will, provided that they continue to come when they're called and pose no serious disciplinary problems.
That word, "Come," is the quid pro quo of effective training. Other commands that should be taught with rote repetition and praise during the dog's first few weeks in your home include "No," "Sit," "Stay" and "Heel." Pay special attention to "No," which should be conveyed in a tone different from the rest. Nor should you forget "Kennel," which in my case is short for "get into the back of the truck" rather than an actual kennel or cage.
There's no need to discuss specific methods of imparting these nuggets of knowledge here. Instead, ask your veterinarian or local librarian for a basic dog-training book and read it thoroughly.
Fieldwork takes a little more effort than teaching the simple verbal commands. Most of it involves getting your flusher to quarter back and forth, windshield-wiper pattern, no more than 20 or 30 yards ahead of you. You'll also need to get the dog to change directions on command, lest its wanderings take it too far from game or too close to danger.
Schedule this phase of training when the dog is four to five months old. Begin by augmenting your voice with a whistle and hand signals. In the yard, sound a single note on the whistle and call "Fido, come." As the dog starts to come, gesture toward yourself with your hand. Use the whistle and an appropriate hand signal to punctuate the commands "Sit" and "Stay" as well.
Early field-training lessons should be conducted in a small plot of short grass where you and your developing flusher have a clear view of one another.
First time out, let the dog run a while so that it feels confident in these strange surroundings, then start to take control. When he gets out of shotgun range, blow the whistle and call "Fido, sit." Assuming the dog responds as he has in the yard, follow up by an asserting "Stay." Then walk at an angle toward the right or left of pooch's position, blow the whistle again, say "Fido, hunt," (a new command) and point emphatically in the desired direction.
Keep doing this, zigging left and zagging right, and after a couple of lessons, your dog should be quartering routinely at a reasonable distance. To reinforce your teaching, say "Good dog" often. Limit each session to about 15 minutes or so, and end those that go well with a biscuit or other small treat.
If your dog is stubborn or has trouble catching on to quartering, try attaching a light rope about 75 feet long to his collar. If he refuses to "hunt" as you wish, simply catch up to the trailing end of the rope, grab it and haul him in the desired direction as you issue the command. When the dog gets the hang of quartering, move on to thicker cover.
As it happens, most flushers of hunting stock quarter naturally. After 10 years of working with me, my dog now changes directions instantly whenever she hears the whistle.
The use of real birds, dead or alive, is a great way to emphasize the value and rewards of hunting close. First, obtain a dead, small bird, such as a pigeon or even a starling. Pull it out of your coat pocket in the dog's presence and invite him to inspect it. Don't be disturbed if the pup reacts with timidity. Let him sniff it all he wants, and allow your own enthusiasm to show when the dog acts interested. Play a little tug-of-war, if the pup seems possessive of his feathered prize. Toss it a short distance, and if the dog picks it up, say "Come" or "Fetch," accompanied by an appropriate gesture.
An old pheasant wing, sprayed with scent and tethered to fishing line, can be used to build on the pup's bird-finding instinct. Lay down a Z-shaped scent trail with the wing. Leave the wing at the end of the trail as a reward.
The next logical step is the use of planted pigeons or game birds, preferably in the controlled setting of a licensed shooting preserve. Pigeons can be obtained free, if you happen to own a cage trap and know a farmer who has too many birds in his barn, but you will likely have to pay for bobwhites, chukars or ringnecks at a preserve. Fortunately, most preserve owners love to train young dogs and will work closely with hunters to assure that they get the maximum bang for their training bucks.
Put half a dozen or so of the birds you choose in a field, some to the left and some to the right. Mark each location carefully and have the preserve owner dizzy each birds before ifs planted, so that it will stay put for a while.
After the birds have been set out, take your dog through the field, quartering in such a way that he will scent each planted bird. The resulting flushes will be fixed in your dog's mind for the rest of its hunting career.
Guns aren't necessary the first time you work with live birds, but the second or third time out you might want to ask the preserve owner if he'd mind shooting a couple of birds for you. That will give you the opportunity to teach your dog to "Hup," or sit and watch, when it has pushed a bird into flight. Although not essential, the "Hup" command is useful because it puts a flushing dog in a position where it can mark the birds fall while staying safe from errant shot pellets.
All that stands between you and a finished flushing dog is continued regular training throughout the year.
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